Ramblings about Design, UX, Process, Code... basically where my thoughts go when nobody else is listening. Est. 2009.

Working Smarter Versus Working Harder

All-night coding sessions. Working weekends. 14 hour days. It seems like the digital world including myself (and to a large degree, the rest of the business world) equates long hours with hard work. One of the biggest takeaways I've had in 2013 has been a departure from this perspective. A meritocracy driven by the quality of work, delivering on-time when given reasonable deadlines, and a healthy work-life balance is the new status symbol of choice.

Though I don't work for a startup, the stark contrast between the expectations in agency life and Results Oriented Work Environments (ROWE) are palpable in my personal experience. Some great views around this topic have been articulated by Ryan Carson in a blog post that recently resurfaced on news.ycombinator.com. He addresses work / life balance with his well-known startup Treehouse, their 4-day-a-week office schedule, and the myth that working crazy hours yields great work. From the article (and comments), I wanted to pull out a few things that really resonated:

"Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things"

Ryan Carson makes the arguement that 4 days of focused work (9am - 6pm) gives his team the balance they need. To accomplish this, there's not a lot of time for dead-weight. The team needs to be both efficient at accomplishing their core job competencies and have effective management and leadership to keep the team working on the right problems at the right time. Obviously not all workplaces can make the claim that they are one or the other, let alone both at the same time. The efficient-effective work week is a white elephant that, in the right size company, with the right business model, with the right people on the bus and in the correct seats can be obtained.

Creative work isn't a factory; Time-to-value yield isn't always 1:1.

Burnout is real. I've experienced it before and I'm sure most have at one time or another. If you're in hour 12, you probably aren't going to add as nearly as much value grinding out a tired hour 13 as you would working fresh in the morning... and if you "get it done", often the error rate and rework needed pushes the deliverable date past where you wanted in the first place. Not to say that deadlines aren't important - we all have deadlines - but the myth of the immovable deadline is often perpetuated by poor communication and the lack of both transparency and strong 2-way communication with clients / internal project stakeholders. Getting it done is important, but getting it done right the first time is even more important.

America admires people who work hard. People who "just get it done" ...sacrificing time with friends, spouses, and kids because they have a hard deadline that they "just have to meet". Don't get me wrong, an occasional late night or deadline push isn't an issue, it's part of working in a project-based industry. Chronic late nights because of poor planning or communication shouldn't ever be "just how it is". Regardless your job title or pay grade, being overworked sucks.

Short-term overwork without recognition or reward puts you quickly down the path of burnout. Long-term overwork runs the risk of establishing a toxic culture in the workplace. A culture of long hours also makes it harder to hire and retain talent for your company as a whole... nobody volunteers to be tired, cranky, error-prone, and defensive. If you are constantly having to work 60-70 hour weeks to meet your deadlines, your company either needs to hire more employees or set more reasonable turn-times for projects.

Don't Punish Employees for Being Efficient

One final comment about work-weeks and expected office hours: Though it may seem there's always something to work on, working hard and being ahead of your deadlines doesn't mean you should be idle, nor does it mean you have to cover yourself up with more work to "fill up the time". If you arrive fresh in the morning, worked all day, accomplished the 4 things on your list for the day and you're finished an hour early, that should be celebrated! The energy and positivity you'll bring with you to work the next day from the extra rest / leisure time / time with family / time for hobbies or passion projects is contageous and if nothing else will boost team morale. So rarely do we get ahead of schedule, it should be something that is valued as a positive. The concept of the 'work week' was born out of technological limitations... with the solutions in the marketplace, there's no reason for ever "filling up the time".

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